Shifting discourse

Peoplehood in practice

In settings where “Jewish peoplehood” is taught and modeled, attention is turning away from rigid definitions and fixed frameworks toward an emphasis on putting peoplehood into practice. As the scholar Noam Pianko has argued, there is a need to shift the “core emphasis in Jewish collectivity from being to doing.” The newer emphasis on praxis is particularly well-suited to elevating and honoring the expansive diversity that now characterizes our Jewish communities. Moreover, it is also a powerful methodology for bridging divides between Jewish societies and for strengthening Jewish unity.

The art of practicing Jewish peoplehood requires a new spirit of mutuality and equality in deepening and expanding exchange and immersive experiences. Not only can these strengthen literacy and connectivity — two of the most reliable drivers of Jewish belonging — but they are effective in chipping away at dichotomies that all-too-often stand in the way of Jewish unity. 

We should also be looking deeper into our own traditions and heritage for authentic models of inclusion and diversity to ensure our Jewish spaces are welcoming. The peoplehood paradigm demands that we strive to be more intentional and creative about how we widen our circles of Jewish engagement.

How does this translate into practice? 

Together, we are part of a broader community of practice, a network of peoplehood professionals, and these are case studies of programs we have helped design and implement, initiatives that adhere to 21 century peoplehood principles.

On college campuses across North America, the American Sephardi Federation has piloted the Sephardi House Fellowship, a national learning and leadership development experience that seeks to infuse the wisdom, diversity, creativity and warmth of the Sephardic spirit into Jewish student life, while also advancing Jewish unity and pride.

Similarly, the Sephardic Mizrahi Q Network is a grassroots movement that is building a vibrant and supportive community for an often-overlooked segment of the Jewish world: LGBTQ+ Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. SMQN works to create a much-needed communal platform that uplifts and celebrates the full, multilayered identities of Queer Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. In doing so, the organization has also engaged the broader Jewish world in connecting to the experiences and contributions of LGBTQ+ and Sephardic Mizrahi Jews. 

These programs draw on the “mosaic” model of Jewish peoplehood, which simultaneously celebrates the diverse and eclectic experiences of the Jewish people, while also deepening a sense of global Jewish belonging and interconnectedness. Long left on the margins of our Jewish society, here in North America, the Sephardic experience of interweaving diversity with Jewish commonality deserves greater attention and focus by Jewish leaders and community organizations. Now, more than ever, this successful model of Jewish peoplehood has an abundance of lessons to teach us precisely at this moment when conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion are gaining prominence. 

In Southern California, the Jewish Federation of Orange County and Temple Beth Tikvah, a Fullerton-based Reform congregation, partnered with Kehillat Raanan/Beit Samueli, a Reform community in Raanana for a series of encounters and learning opportunities in Israel and in California. The program, called “Krovim,” is built around teen cohorts from both societies. The aim is to foster meaningful relationships and cross-cultural dialogue between young people and their families through homestays and group activities. 

The American teens stayed with the families of Israeli participants, and later, the Israeli teens stayed with the families of the American participants. Through hikes and nature outings, shared Shabbat experiences, and less structured quality time together, this immersive mifgash experience is carefully designed to enable the families and teens to get to know one another within a framework based on mutuality and equality. 

Over the summer, the teens toured Israel together, learning about Zionism and contemporary Jewish history, while discovering what they share in common and also how they differ in terms of Jewish identity and practice. In the fall, the Israeli teens came to Orange County to experience how we cultivate Jewish life in a setting where Jews live as a minority. The program is just one of a suite of Jewish Federation initiatives, in California and elsewhere, that reflect a mindset shift away from a traditional grantmaking and “allocations” model and toward peoplehood centered strategies that elevate connectivity, literacy and bridge building across Jewish societies. 

There are also lessons from the expanding field of Jewish camping, including new initiatives for reaching underrepresented populations like Jews of Color, Israeli-Americans and Russian Speaking Jewry (RSJ). These are growing segments of our Jewish communities, ones who do not always feel welcome or find that existing Jewish offerings resonate with their multi-layered identities. Jewish day and overnight camps, not unlike schools, synagogues and youth groups, rely on peer-to-peer recruitment, which is critical, but can also lead to homogenized enrollment outcomes if efforts to connect and include wider groups are not elevated and prioritized.

At Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), North American Jewry’s preeminent organization that supports the growth and innovation of camping, there are now a plethora of incentive-based and tailored initiatives that enable camps to reach deeper into every corner of our Jewish communities worldwide. 

FJC is supporting global educational programs such as Machane Olami, a fellowship designed to recruit Jewish staff from around the world. FJC’s Yashar Initiative has invested over $12 million dollars in building the accessibility infrastructure needed to ensure that 5-10% of Jewish camp communities are comprised of individuals with disabilities. FJC also partners with Keshet to ensure camps are LGBTQ-affirming communities. 

The peer-to-peer model will remain a pillar of recruitment and retention, but it is also being enhanced with intentional efforts to broaden the reach of camps and to reflect the diverse tapestry of today’s Jewish young people. These efforts are critical. A 2021 survey of over 3,000 Jewish camp staff showed that 94% believe having people at camp who are different improves the overall camp experience and that it is important to ensure an inclusive environment for everyone. Peoplehood is an inclusive paradigm, and one we must learn from and embrace. 

The One2One initiative, which matches Israeli and North American high school students, and was initiated by Enter during the pandemic to compensate for the massive contraction in exchange activities, is another example of putting peoplehood values into practice. As Jeff Solomon and Alon Friedman argued in eJP early in the pandemic, there is no reason why young people from across the Jewish world cannot be paired online within a framework that strengthens their Jewish literacy, promotes diversity and nourishes their personal and professional interests. 

Through an expanded partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Education and the Marcus Foundation-funded RootOne initiative, One2One allows young people to create their own personal connections. One2One is anchored in a commitment to mutuality. Participants encounter one another on an equal footing. The program produces outcomes that reflect improved knowledge and greater appreciation for Jewish life in a parallel society. One2One also cultivates empathy. As Nigel Savage recently argued in Sapir, empathy is critical for feeding peoplehood consciousness in our increasingly polarized world. The program is tailor-made to deepen in-person, immersive experiences, but can also function as a stand-alone, independent platform when travel is out of the equation. 

Rather than get bogged down in debates and discourse about “bloodlines” and “boundaries,” the peoplehood discourse is shifting. Jewish engagement platforms would be well served to study these and similar case studies and learn how to effectively translate 21 century peoplehood values into sustainable, attractive and impactful programs. 

There is an urgency to this challenge, particularly as our community lurches toward a “diversity, equity and inclusion” archetype that is often bereft of authentic Jewish terms of reference. Moreover, as our communities emerge from the massive pandemic disruptions and look to rebuild and expand membership and participation, we will need to rely more heavily on the peoplehood paradigm.

We live in an era of unrivaled Jewish success, in Israel and across the Jewish world, yet it is also a time of challenges, given so many signs of disunity, dissension and detachment. Few ideas in our Jewish world are better suited than “peoplehood” for overcoming the obstacles we face. 

But don’t turn to Encyclopedia Judaica, or even Wikipedia, 21century Jewish peoplehood is more about consciousness and benchmarks. It is about putting peoplehood into practice.

Nila Rosen is director of learning and research at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Lisa Armony is the chief impact officer and director of the Rose Project at the Jewish Federation of Orange County (California). Ruben Shimonov is the national director of Sephardi House and Young Leadership for the American Sephardi Federation. Scott Lasensky is a visiting professor at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland and senior advisor to Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance.